May 6, 2009 — I'm kinda pissed at Native Americans, at least the ones that populated the East Coast. They never really invented stonemasonry, and our lives have been impoverished as a result.
In other countries, it seems like you can’t even go to the supermarket without passing some majestic ancient ruin or impressive standing work of culture left over from past civilizations. Easter Island has its giant heads, the lower Americas and Egypt both have pyramids, Europe has its castles and stone circles, the Middle East has its temples, and the Far East has a wall large enough that you’d have to dismantle all the ancient works of all the other past civilizations to procure enough materials to duplicate it.
The East Coast tribes had thousands of years to construct, wear out, and abandon lasting works, but instead spent all that time being overly mobile and nature-harmonious. As a result, we only get a few arrowheads scattered in the dirt, some drawings on random rocks, and a subset of rivers with hard-to-pronounce names.
Not that our European forefathers helped the cause much either in the few hundred years that they had to build something worthy of decay or abandonment. Just a few well holes and some stone cellars. Nothing inspiring or perspective-inducing. In their defense, though, that was just our budding moments as an American people. We’re still actively working on Stage One in the ruins-making process: Constructing new buildings.
However, there is one place that I know of near me that at least offers the illusion that illustrates the truth that reality itself, despite itself, refuses to illustrate in this part of the world...that we walk on ancients. If you assimilated that hideous sentence on the first try, you’re the winner. The place is called the Madame Sherri Castle Ruins, it’s located in Chesterfield, NH, and it’s of ridiculously recent vintage.
Although under other circumstances it probably would be, the great part about the ruins of Madame Sherri’s castle is not the fact that it was once the mansion retreat of a rich eccentric who liked to drive around in a fur coat and nothing else (that’s the story anyway, but if you get caught doing something like that once, you’re pegged in perpetuity for doing it all the time, or so I’m told), but that it ruined in such an aesthetically pleasing fashion, with a long stone staircase that ends mid-air among the forlorn shapes of stone chimneys, columns, and arches, all back-dropped by the beautiful 500-acre forest that bears her name.
Paris-born Madame Antoinette Sherri earned her fortune in show business as a theater costume designer in New York, but she earned her enduring fame in the Granite State. She built her stone mansion as a summer house sometime in the early 1930s, and she was known for the extravagant parties she threw there, as well as tooling around nearby towns in expensive cars and outfits, and generally acting like a character from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. Over time, the mansion was neglected until a fire brought about its official demise just before Madame Sherri’s own in 1965 at the age of 84.
In this case, the pyromaniacs were right. The fire left behind a pleasing medieval-looking ruin, the most prominent feature of which is a set of curving stone steps that end abruptly some 20 feet in the air. In fact, the place looks more like a castle now in decay than it did at its peak, when it originally received the moniker. I was able to walk all the way up the stairway with little difficulty, but had to butt-slide down like a three-year-old to keep vertigo from being my murderer (that role is reserved). There was no handrail. Those are always the first to go in the ruination process.
The top floor of the ruin, a word which has completely lost all meaning for me since I started writing this article, bears a few surviving stone columns and chimneys that poke up from the house frame through a layer of soil and grass. The floor beneath that layer is filled with rocks and other cave-in detritus, and Madame Sherri would be happy to know that, judging by the beer bottles and graffiti we found inside, people still party there.
Even though the castle is surrounded by forest, there’s actually a parking lot close by for the convenience of hikers making natural use of the area. But you don’t have to hike to the castle itself, although that might make it a much cooler experience. I’m always fighting the battle between cool and convenient. They’re both things I want out of life, and they’re rarely compatible.
To get there from the parking lot, take the path to the right past the sign that represents the full extent of my research for this article and which includes a picture of Madame Sherri and her husband, Andre, who died before the castle phase of Sherri’s life. I know I should probably be using compass terms for directions since this is wilderness, but I still have trouble discerning my left from my right without focused, conscious thought, so trying to communicate in four directions will tie me up like an Octopus with Parkinson’s. I wish the part of that statement that wasn’t a joke was a joke. Drive behind my turn signals sometime.
From here the area goes either uphill or downhill, depending upon where I want to take this joke. It goes downhill, because there are no more intriguing ruins to clamber on. It goes uphill because the network of trails that lead away from the ruins go up the casually named Daniels Mountain. On one of these trails, the Daniels Mountain trail itself, you can even see over into the state of Vermont from your New Hampshire vantage point. The dotted line that is the official state boundary painted by Rand McNally is clearly visible.
Although the area around the ruins is veined with these picturesque hiking trails, the majesty of nature still takes a rare back seat here to this carcass of a castle. In fact, the paradox of beauty in decay that is so well-illustrated here is probably where I should have started this article instead of making clumsy statements about Native Americans, but it’s not a bad place to end up, either. Except that I don’t have anything to say about it other than those five words.